The Bible sets forth a table.
Those who sat at the table first insisted that it forbade Assyrians. They had a Bible, and in the book of Nahum they read that the Assyrians had provoked God’s wrath, and they read that God’s wrath never ceases. But then the book of Jonah said that, not only does God’s wrath cease, but God would do anything to make it cease. The book of Jonah grew the table, and the Assyrians had a place.
But those at the table also insisted that it forbade Moabites. They had a Bible, and in the book of Deuteronomy they read that the Moabites would never live among God’s people. But then the book of Ruth said that, not only could Moabites live among God’s people, but King David—the greatest king in Israel’s history—was the decendent of a Moabite woman. The book of Ruth grew the table, and the Moabites had a place.
But those at the table also insisted that, while it might possibly allow Assyrians and Moabites and Greeks and Romans, it forbade those Assyrians and Moabites and Greeks and Romans who did not become Jews. They had a Bible, and in the book of Deuteronomy, they read that those who keep Torah are blessed and those who abolish Torah are cursed. But then the book of Romans said that, not only would gentiles not have to follow Torah, but that it had always been this way from the beginning. The book of Romans grew the table, and we gentiles have a place.
This takes me to my first point.
The 8th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles introduced a man in a chariot who was traveling south through Gaza. The writer of Acts used this man—and numerous strategic details—to once again make a bigger table.
We are told that he was the treasurer of the Queen of Ethiopia, but he had just spent the week in Jerusalem to worship God during Passover—that is to say, this man was a Torah-observant gentile. We are told that the long route from Ethiopia to Jerusalem is a wilderness route—that is to say, if this man was to have a seat at the table, he had to want it. We are also told that he was reading the scroll from the prophet Isaiah, but was having trouble understanding it—that is to say, he spent a whole week in the capital city of Judaism, and yet no one there would explain their great prophet Isaiah to him.
These details set up a final detail, one that at first seems intrusive, but is the key to the whole story. We are told that the man was a eunuch—that is to say, because he worked in close proximity to the Queen of Ethiopia, he had at some point been castrated. At first glance, you might wonder why that information is any of our business.
But the Bible once again was up to mischief.
No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted among the people of the Lord.
Do you you see what’s coming? This man had traveled more than two thousand miles through the wilderness to have a seat at the Lord’s table. But those at the table insisted that it forbade those who were not gender conforming. They had a Bible, and in the book of Deuteronomy they read that eunuchs could not enter the kingdom. No one in Jerusalem would explain the prophet Isaiah because the Bible told them he was not welcome there in the first place.
But despite clear biblical authority on this matter, the man asked a daring question: What prevents me as a gender nonconformist from being baptized? And the Bible answered, nothing.
The book of Acts grew the table, and gender nonconformists have a place.
The Word of God
The Bible sets forth a strangely growing table.
Every time the Bible declares that there is no room for some people at the table, the table just grows.
It outgrows even the Bible sometimes.
This is an unruly table.
It doesn’t always listen to the Bible.
But it always listens to God.
Because growing the table is how the people of God solved the problem at the heart of their scriptures.
Growing the table is how they defeated the empire.
This table, you could say, is my religion.
Putting faith in God requires putting faith in God’s Word, but God’s Word isn’t the Bible. God’s Word is Jesus. The Bible isn’t always the perfect record of what God said; it is the perfect record of what God’s people heard. The Bible is an anthology, a collection of writings as God’s people came to hear God more and more clearly.
Make no mistake, the biggest problem the Jews had with Jesus was the Bible. And they were usually right! That’s why John wrote his Gospel. John wanted you to know that the Word of God is Jesus, not the Bible.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. . . .
For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.
Jesus is what God has to say, not the Bible. You don’t get to just find a Bible verse and announce, “The word of God!” That’s not how the Bible works. That’s not what it’s up to. It’s not in the business of setting you straight. It’s up to mischief.
The Bible is the inspired journey of those who sought to know God. Sometimes they heard him well. Sometimes they didn’t, even when they thought they did.
But eventually they found him.
Eventually they found the Word of God.
And his name is Jesus.
This is why I’m not impressed when my alma mater, Harding University, suspends LGBT people because of “biblical authority.” My question is which biblical authority? And my next question is and what about our authority to bind and to loose? What about our authority to grow the table beyond what can sometimes be found in the Bible? Isn’t that biblical authority too? And if we don’t exercise that authority, do we really believe in biblical authority?
I don’t worry that Paul couldn’t imagine that LGBT people would also have a seat at the table. I don’t worry about this not because I have a low view of the Bible, but because I have a high view of it. I place a high value on the enduring trajectory it sets forth—bigger, bigger, more, more! The Bible that sets forth Paul’s early interpretation on how to carry out Jesus’s commands is the same Bible that gives us the authority to thoughtfully disagree with Paul.
The fact that more people could be welcome to the table than Paul could imagine simply puts him in league with most everyone else who wrote the Bible. Paul did a massive amount of loosing. He did a massive amount of “But, Paul, you can’t write that because the Bible!” But nowhere does Jesus say that Paul would do all the loosing there was to do.
So, I say yes! Let’s follow biblical authority.
Let’s let in more people than the Bible does.
Because THAT is what the Bible does.
Before we go on, you may object. You may want to say that Jesus’s teaching on the keys to the kingdom applied only to his first disciples—specifically those who were there with him in Caesarea Philippi. I disagree with that objection, but I’ll grant it’s an honest objection. Nevertheless, if that’s the objection you want to make, I have one question for you: Where was Paul at this time? I know he wasn’t in Caesarea Philippi.
And if Paul wasn’t one of the disciples in Caesarea Philippi, then, according to your argument, what authority does he have to bind and loose who will be in the kingdom? And if he wasn’t there, what other authority do we have to exclude LGBT people from our assembly? And if your answer is “the Torah said so,” then are you also keeping kosher? Are you observing the sacred calendar? Do you wear garments made from different kinds of threads? When is the last time you woke up and recited the Sh’mah?
You see the problem?
All said, I’m holding to what I’ve argued all along. The keys to the kingdom were not given to Jesus’s first disciples only for them to be buried in the ground. The authority that Jesus described—the authority of the church to bind and loose—had long been a thing that was passed down. There is no indication that Jesus intended anything different. Frankly, I think Jesus made that abundantly clear.
Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.
We quote that last sentence all the time. I would like to think it still applies today. But if it does apply today, it cannot be divorced from what Jesus was actually talking about in context. Where two or three gather in Jesus’s name, they are given the authority to decide whether people will be admitted into the kingdom. That’s a crazy, insane amount of trust that Jesus has in humans. Do we believe it?
Why This Is Scary For You
I understand why you find me so threatening. It’s Hell, right? If I asked you what Jesus saved us from, you would say our sins. And that’s a good, historic, biblical, and orthodox answer.
But if I asked you what happens if your sins aren’t forgiven, you would probably say, you go to Hell.
Okay, and what is Hell?
Eternal separation from God in fire after you die.
And what is the kingdom?
Those who when they die go to Heaven and not Hell.
And how do we know how to avoid this eternity in fire?
Do you see why I spent so much time trying to unshackle you from that tight little system?
(Do you see why this took six installments?)
If the conversation I just simulated is the world you live in, I get how threatening it can feel when someone like me comes around saying that God loves and accepts LGBT people. Because in that Bible you use to know how to not go to Hell, Paul describes homosexuality as sinful. If you live in a Bible-as-the-thing-that-tells-me-how-I-can-personally-be-saved-when-I-die kind of Christianity, I can’t imagine you ever believing that God loves and accepts LGBT people. I really can’t.
But as I’ve labored to explain, the faith I just described is not the ancient faith.
That faith was not about using the Bible to know how I can personally be saved from my personal sins when I die. That faith was about how we can be saved from our systems of sin now. And the Kingdom isn’t the people who will go up to Heaven when they die. The Kingdom is the renewed Earth made to look like Heaven.
These are massive differences.
I believe they are altogether different religions.
But if my explanation on the church’s authority to interpret Jesus’s teaching is to not scare you so much, I had to remove from the modern “fire insurance” kind of Christianity. I had to rework the questions you bring to the Bible. We all need a more ancient understanding of what specifically about the Jewish law and prophets Jesus claimed he fulfilled. God is remaking how the world works. He’s remaking our social structures, our politics, our economics, our relationship to the earth, and our understanding of violence. This is the Kingdom.
Using our authority to extend a place in God’s Kingdom to our LGBT neighbors should not be scary at all—it’s exciting. No doubt, the church has to make judgments about who and what will be in the Kingdom. Not everything belongs there. But to be clear, we really do have a lot of guidance on this. And from the Word.
Jesus made it crystal clear who would be blessed in this Kingdom. It wouldn’t be the power brokers of Rome. It wouldn’t be the rich. It wouldn’t be the violent. It wouldn’t be Tiberius Caesar. It wouldn’t be King Herod. It wouldn’t be the High Priest Caiaphas. No.
As Jesus said:
Blessed are the poor in spirit.
Blessed are those who mourn.
Blessed are the meek.
Blessed are the pure in heart.
Blessed are the merciful.
Blessed are the peacemakers.
And if Jesus were here today, I think he’d have more.
Blessed are those who can’t get a seat on the school bus.
Blessed are those who love anyway.
Blessed are those they say are unnatural.
Blessed are those who have been referred to conversion therapy.
Blessed are you when they say it must be a mental illness.
Blessed are those about whom they say “It’s a choice. God wouldn’t make them that way!”
Blessed are those who want in, but are kept out.
Blessed are the ones hit by waves.
And blessed are the ones who refuse to ride them.
I don’t know about you, but I know of a certain minority population who are uniquely equipped to teach us about the Kingdom. When I see LGBT people, I see all the people who Jesus said would be blessed there. When I see LGBT people, I see the babel who were rejected by the empire when the Hebrews wrote a new creation story. When I see LGBT people, I see all the groups that the Bible excluded from the table until it later grew the table. If we want to welcome the kinds of people whom Jesus welcomed, we should welcome the LGBT. We should give them a seat at the table, and we should let them do most of the talking. If we want to see the Kingdom come sooner than later, we should welcome the LGBT.
God loves them.
And he accepts them.